Hail Varsity Mailbag
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Mailbag: Toughest Games, Polar Bears, Portals, and Season Projections for Nebraska

May 20, 2021

It’s time for another mailbag. Let’s dive in.

We’ve seen multiple transfers from the WR and RB rooms over the last several weeks. What do you predict will be the next position to have more than one player enter the transfer portal? (@Corn_Huskers)  

Greg Smith: I don’t know that it will happen but offensive line wouldn’t surprise me. Even though Greg Austin has a good pulse on his room and sets expectations well there are several players who are looking up at younger players on the depth chart. That usually sets up for transfers.  

Mike Babcock: My initial reaction to the question was the same as Greg’s, but as I think about it, I’ll say the secondary a year from now when the veterans have moved on. There are talented young players who will be in the competition to replace those veterans. And recruits will come in knowing they’ll get a shot. When things don’t work out for some of the young players coming in—maybe there won’t be many, of course, Greg knows more about thatand those waiting their turn, transfers could result. Offensive line recruits know what the situation is with young linemen playing already, or should. 

Jacob Padilla: I could see a couple guys moving on from the defensive line. There are two guys that have been around for a while without managing to crack the two-deep, and there’s at least young one young guy who I think is facing a serious uphill battle to playing time even down the road with the freshmen they brought in. 

Outside of Ohio state, what game will be the toughest BIG game for the Huskers? (@jdub_wolf92) 

GS: Wisconsin gets my vote. Nebraska hasn’t beaten Wisconsin since 2012. The Badgers got revenge that season in the Big Ten title game. Winning in Madison is also hard. That game will be a tough one. 

MB: Probably has to be Wisconsin in Madison, though the expectation might be a loss there. On the other hand, I’d guess Husker fans will expect a win against Minnesota in Minneapolis so the additional pressure might make it a “tougher” win. I’m probably talking semantics. Expectation versus upset. Minnesota will be tough at home, but the expectation is a win, making it a bit tougher. 

Brandon Vogel: Wisconsin is the answer, but in the interest of variety I’ll go ahead and say Minnesota. The offseason division and conference title odds view Nebraska and Minnesota as basically equivalent in terms of team strength, but I really like what the Gophers return. It won’t surprise me at all if Minnesota puts a scare in Ohio State in Week 1, and it is easily my “dark horse” pick to win the West. Wisconsin is a deserving favorite in that race, but I’m more bullish on Minnesota in 2021 than any other team in the West. 

Other than Adrian Martinez, which player is most critical to the Huskers having a successful season? (@dmhusker1) 

MB: The offensive line has to be taken as a unit. An individual can’t be singled out. That’s my first choice. There’s really no position other than quarterback that can excel without those around him, which is the basis for the cliché about the quarterback getting all the credit when things go right on offense and criticism when things go wrong. Maybe somebody in the defensive front, maybe outside linebacker JoJo Domann. 

Erin Sorensen: I agree with Mike on the offensive line and will go one step further and say the specific player on the line is Cameron Jurgens. When he’s good, he’s really good and that makes the machine run better. Obviously he can’t handle it all, but he controls a lot. If he can be the player Scott Frost has said he can be, I think you see a lot of success for Nebraska on offense. 

(Fill in the blank) __________ is the reason the Huskers beat Iowa/Wisconsin or both. (@jdub_wolf92) 

GS: No turnovers. Each team is too fundamentally sound for Nebraska to beat while also beating itself. 

MB: No Nebraska turnovers, AND Iowa/Wisconsin mistakes, turnovers and/or untimely penalties. 

BV: Nebraska hit for big plays in the run game. Iowa and Wisconsin are built to make opposing offenses earn everything they get (Northwestern, too, which is why the West is tougher than anyone acknowledges). Not that big plays aren’t earned, they can be, but they’re more random than consistent success (measured by a number like success rate, my favorite). We’ve seen the Huskers get this against Wisconsin before, not as much against Iowa though the games have been closer. I specifically note the run game here for two reasons: 1) They’re harder to come by, particularly against these two teams, and 2) If you’re hitting for big gains on the ground, good coaches will make sure that big passes follow. It’s just too hard against these two opponents to consistently go on eight- or nine-play scoring drives. You need some threes and fours in there, which is the other thing—Iowa and Wisconsin almost never give you any freebie short drives via field position. You’ve got to make it happen. 

Will there be an arms race among colleges and states regarding how much players can make at their university using their likeness, social media and brand? Will that lead to even more transfers in the portal? (@dmhusker1) 

MB: I’d expect that to be a factor in recruiting, what “we” can do for you in that area compared to what “they” can’t do. As for whether it will lead to more transfers, probably. It will be just one more thing a student-athlete considers when evaluating his or her situation at a school. My concern is that certain student-athletes will be “making money” off the image/likeness while others on the team won’tor won’t be making as much. So how does that affect team chemistry? 

ES: Yes, and it’ll certainly benefit programs like Nebraska where local support is strong and there is little competition from another Power 5 program for dollars. Nebraska isn’t competing with Nebraska State to get its players money, so that’s going to be a big deal on the recruiting trail. I’m sure it’ll affect the portal some but I think players are going to transfer no matter what. That’s just the name of the game anymore in college sports. I’m not as worried about team chemistry—it works in the professional leaguesbut I’m sure it’ll take some adjustment for all. It’s going to be interesting to watch it all unfold—and I think there will certainly be an arms race of sorts—but I think the market will start to balance itself soon enough. Also, we talk a lot about endorsements but keep an eye on the use of things like TikTok. Anyone—no matter what sport or position they playcan become “famous” on an app like TikTok and make some serious money. That’ll make things pretty interesting too. 

Do you think Nash Hutmacher Polar Bear gets any time already this season? Will he eventually be an All-Big Ten player? (@CarnesRegg) 

GS: If Hutmacher gets time it’ll likely be in mop up duty for the 2021 season. Still think he’s progressing nicely but a year away because of the depth at his position. I will say yes he can be a future All-Big Ten player. 

JP: Hutmacher has Damion Daniels and Jordon Riley ahead of him at the nose right now from all indications, and Nebraska spent more time without a true nose on the field than it did with one last season, so there likely won’t be enough snaps available to go three-deep at that position next season. I really liked what I saw from Hutmacher in the spring game, though, and he’s already one of the strongest players on the team from what we’ve heard. If Daniels or Riley go down with an injury this season, then Hutmacher might get a chance to make an impact this season. Where things get interesting is both Daniels and Riley could choose to come back next year (and Daniels has already suggested he’s planning to do so). If Hutmacher continues to progress as he has and both guys come back, Tony Tuioti is going to have some difficult playing time decisions on his hands. 

Buy or Sell: Top-30 defense; three road Big Ten wins (@jdub_wolf92) 

MB: Not buying top-30 defense, could be close though. Three road wins, buying reluctantly, which is how the Huskers might get to seven this season. Trying to be optimistic here in buying. 

BV: Sell 95% of my shares on a top-30 defense though I’m hedging with the remaining 5% because, as Mike said, I think it’ll be close. I might be a buyer at top-40 and almost certainly would at top-45. I have to sell on three road wins, too, but I could see them hitting that number. The Illinois and Michigan State games have to be wins, obviously, and I could see a split with Minnesota-Wisconsin. I’m just not quite ready to put my easily-earned pride dollars behind it, though I’m closer on that one than the defense proposition.  

Where does NU now stand with actual scholarships for the 2021 season? How many players can they go after in the transfer portal this summer and how many scholarships will they hold out for walk-ons? (@NutHusker) 

GS: Nebraska has two scholarships left to give from the 2021 recruiting class. So they can add a pair of players this summer.  

JP: I counted 78 players on scholarship after the defections we’ve seen thus far, and there are a number of walk-ons deserving of a scholarship. I could see up to five of those walk-ons getting scholarships while they leave a spot or two open to maintain flexibility if any transfers they like show up in the portal. 

In early 90’s a Husker football fan said “Just give me 5 years, that’s all I ask. You can have the rest.” Where is that fan now? (@Simba_Simms) 

MB: Those fans are almost 30 years older. They have perspective on where the program was and where it is now. The vocal fan base is younger. It doesn’t have the experience of watching Nebraska when it was consistently in the national conversation, even when it was coming up short. It’s harder to be patient and accepting. 

BV: One of the great things about sports is “there’s always next year.” It’s omnipresent and omnipotent. So, even when you willingly enter an agreement to care about no more next years, if you plan to keep following the sport, time always wins. 

I believe Nebraska has one last open scholarship for men’s basketball. Will they fill it this year if the right transfer is available or save for next year? (@Cty2CtyLyle) 

JP: I think this staff will always want to fill an open scholarship if the right transfer becomes available. That being said, I’m not sure if they’ll find that guy this summer, and with 14 players on scholarship already that definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing. It’s hard enough to keep 13 guys happy. I think that 15th scholarship might be more valuable remaining open in case of a mid-year transfer or high school kid looking to enroll early (see Carter Whitt this past season) unless the Huskers stumble across a guy that can come in and make a difference right away. 

Road to Omaha: how long does Nebraska Baseball stay on the road? (@ScNOTty_Frost) 

MB: The Huskers will be competitive and have a shot to get through a regional into a super-regional, where the season likely will end. They’ll get into the NCAA tournament even if they don’t win the B1G title. But that would be a big boost to their regional chances. 

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